Directed by: Jason Bateman
Premise: A foul mouthed grown man (Jason Bateman) exploits a loophole in the rules of a national spelling bee in order to participate. In the process of insult parents and sabotaging his eighth grade competitors, the middle aged man befriends a boy (Rohan Chand).
What Works: Few actors play meanness with quite the same relish as Jason Bateman. As an actor in movies like The Change-Up and The Switch, Bateman has consistently shown a willingness to give himself over to despicability and in Bad Words he goes out of his way to achieve new levels of impropriety. Bateman plays a character who curses at parents, provides porn to children, and is consistently and unnecessarily cruel to everyone in his path. There is no denying that Bateman is effective in this role and he administers the insults with his characteristically dry delivery. Bateman’s spelling bee crasher is paired with a journalist played by Kathryn Hahn and she is also very well cast. In the same way that Bateman is unlikeable, Hahn is awkwardly desperate and when the two characters are required to interact they give the film many of its best moments. In the latter half of the movie, the filmmakers of Bad Words explore why this grown man is doing this and at that point it gets much better. It is revealed that Bateman’s character is out to do more than just ruin a spelling bee and when that happens the actors are able to deliver more nuanced performances.
What Doesn’t: The most obvious precedent for Bad Words is the 2003 comedy Bad Santa. Like Bad Santa, the moviemakers present the audience with a boozy and foul-mouthed looser who has a very specialized skill; in Terry Zwigoff’s film that was safecracking but in Bad Words the protagonist has an uncanny knack for spelling. Also like Bad Santa, the lead character befriends an outcast young boy; in the earlier film that part was cast as an overweight kid whose parents were in prison and in Bad Words the child is imagined as a boy of central Asian heritage who stays in a hotel room by himself. As is predictable, Bateman’s character is impacted by his relationship with the boy and he eventually reveals a softer and more compassionate side. However, the parallels between Bad Santa and Bad Words are only perfunctory and in comparison to the 2003 picture Bad Words comes up considerably short. The primary difference between the two is found in the main character. Billy Bob Thornton’s character of Bad Santa was equally foul but Thornton was pathetic in the true sense of the word; despite the awful things he said and the socially unacceptable ways he conducted himself, Thornton possessed a tragic quality that elicited sympathy from the audience. Jason Bateman’s character in Bad Words has nowhere near that same kind of appeal. Where Thornton’s character was awful yet human, Bateman is just a jerk with a penchant for racist and sexist remarks and the filmmakers keep him at a distance, never achieving adequate empathy. The relationship with the child is intended to redeem the character but it comes across as disingenuous. Part of the problem may be child actor Rohan Chand whose line delivery is a little too rehearsed. The filmmakers send these two mismatched friends on a series of shenanigans but they are not very imaginative and they fail to bond the characters to each other or to the audience. The movie does have one-liners that are effective and will elicit laughs, even if they are embarrassed or guilty laughs. However, the laughs come too infrequently and the movie is so mean and so devoid of humanity that it is off-putting.
Bottom Line: Bad Words tries to replicate the success of Bad Santa but it is a shallow imitation that misses the nuances that made the earlier film work. This is an attempt to indulge the joy of being deliberately politically incorrect but Bad Words is not nearly as subversive as the filmmakers seem to think it is.
Episode: #486 (April 13, 2014)